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Why powerful people behave badly

  • 06 July 2018


The Financial Services Royal Commission (FSRC) has exposed appalling behaviour from once respected leaders. And while we're right to be outraged, it's important to understand that it's not entirely their fault.

Pinning all the blame for poor behaviour on deliberate individual choice is a fundamental attribution error. This occurs when we overestimate the importance of others' attitudes and underestimate the effect of context on behaviour. Media narrative that focuses on personalities rather than the effect of context on behaviour is symptomatic. We need to rise above the salacious gossip and the spectacle of corporate beheadings to understand what drives behaviour in powerful people, take a more reasoned approach and achieve sustainable change.

Getting to the top of one of the organisations currently exposed by the FSRC is quite an achievement. Those at the top are on average brighter, better qualified, more capable and much harder working than the rest of us. But eventually that leads to their undoing, according to Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Keltner argues that as power corrupts, leaders exhibit four telltale behaviours. They display empathy deficits, self-serving impulsivity, incivility and disrespect, and are susceptible to narratives of exceptionalism. For example, in one study, when asked to draw the letter E on their foreheads for someone sitting across from them to see, people feeling powerful were nearly three times more likely to fail at taking another’s perspective. In other words, those feeling powerful wrote the letter E from their own perspective so that it appeared backward to others.

In another study, those feeling powerful were nearly twice as likely to display self-serving impulsivity, in this case by taking the remaining extra chocolate biscuit ahead of their less powerful colleagues. And in another, nearly half the drivers of expensive cars ignored pedestrians at a crosswalk, whereas none of those in cheaper cars did. One only need listen to a random selection of interviews from the FSRC to find echoes of some or all of these behaviours.

And those bad behaviours form a cocktail with the kinds of biases that we all suffer from, particularly optimism bias, overconfidence, and the illusion of control. To explain these terms briefly; optimism bias, as the name suggests, is the tendency to assume that things will work out in one's favour despite indications to the contrary. Confirmation bias is the tendency to select information that supports a belief, ignoring or discarding